History Of The Conquest Of Mexico, The Aztecs (part six)
The Postclassical Era
Book: Chapter 17: The Americas On The Eve Of Invasion
Author: Prescott, William H
Aztec Society In Transition
During their wanderings, the Aztecs had been divided into seven calpulli,
or clans, a form of organization that they would later expand and adapt to
their imperial position. By the 16th century there were about 20 major
calpulli and 40 associated ones in Tenochtitlan alone. The calpulli were no
longer only kinship groups but also residential groupings that might include
neighbors, allies, and dependents. Much of Aztec local life remained based on
the calpulli, which performed important functions such as distributing land to
heads of households, organizing labor gangs and military units in times of
war, and maintaining a temple and school. Calpulli were governed by councils
of family heads, but not all families were equal, nor were all calpulli of
The calpulli had obviously been the ancient and basic building block of
Aztec society. In the origins of Aztec society every person - noble and
commoner - had belonged to a calpulli, but Aztec power increased and the rule
of the empire expanded. The calpulli had been transformed, and other forms of
social stratification had emerged. Legends of their origins emphasized that at
one time the Aztecs had all been peasants and had worked for others. As Aztec
power expanded, a class of nobility emerged, based on certain privileged
families in the most distinguished calpulli. Originating from the lineages
that headed calpulli - especially those that had married into non-Mexica
families or could claim Toltec background - and by marriages, military
achievements, or service to the state, this group of nobility accumulated high
office, private lands, and other advantages. The most prominent families in
the calpulli, those who had dominated leadership roles and formed a kind of
local nobility, were eventually overshadowed by the military and
administrative nobility of the Aztec state.
While some commoners might receive promotion to noble status, most nobles
were born into the class - although birth merely qualified an individual for
high position, which ultimately depended on performance and ability. Nobles
controlled the priesthood and the military leadership. The military, in fact,
was organized into various ranks based on experience and success in taking
captives. Military virtues were linked to the cult of sacrifice and infused
the whole society; they became the justification for the nobility's
predominance and the ideology of the nobility's identity. The "flowery death,"
or death while taking prisoners for the sacrificial knife, was the fitting end
to a noble life and assured eternity in the highest heaven, a reward also
promised to women who died in childbirth. The military was highly ritualized:
There were orders of warriors - the jaguar, eagle, and other groups each had a
distinctive uniform and ritual and fought together as units. Distinctive
banners, cloaks, and other insignia marked off the military ranks.
The social gulf that separated the nobility from the commoners was
widening as the empire grew and the pipiltin accumulated the lands and tribute
that the expansion implied. Egalitarian principles that may have once existed
in Aztec life disappeared - a situation similar to what happened among the
warring German tribes of early medieval Europe. Social distinctions were made
apparent by the use and restrictions on clothing, hairstyles, uniforms, and
other outward symbols of rank. The imperial family became the most
distinguished of the pipiltin families. Moctezuma II was particularly anxious
to favor the nobility, and under his rule aristocratic domination of society
was intensified and commoners were increasingly limited in their opportunities
for advancement and recognition.
As the nobility broke free from their old calpulli and acquired private
lands, a new class of workers was created to serve as laborers on these lands.
These mayeques, or serfs, were sometimes from dependent clans or more often
from conquered peoples. Unlike the commoners attached to the land-controlling
calpulli, the mayeques did not control land and worked at the will of others.
Their status was low, but it was still above that of the slaves who might have
been war captives, persons punished for crimes, or those who had sold
themselves into bondage to escape hunger. The mayeques often did domestic
work, and while they could buy their freedom, they could also be offered as
sacrifices by their owner. Together, the mayeques and the slaves formed a
growing sector of the population whose situation was directly tied to the
fortunes of the nobility and the strength of the Aztec Empire and who had
little to gain from its success. Finally, there were other social groups. The
scribes, artisans, and healers all constituted part of a kind of intermediate
group, especially important in the larger cities. The long-distance merchants
formed a sort of calpulli with their own patron gods, privileges, and internal
divisions. They sometimes served as spies or agents for the Aztec military,
but despite this role and their wealth, they were subject to restrictions that
hindered their entry into or rivalry with the nobility.
It is possible to see an emerging conflict between the nobility and the
commoners and to interpret this as a class struggle, but some specialists
emphasize that to interpret Aztec society on that basis is to impose Western
concepts on a different reality. Corporate bodies, such as the calpulli,
temple maintenance associations, and occupational groups, cut across class and
remained important in Aztec life. Competition between corporate groups was
often more apparent and more violent than between social classes.
Features Of Aztec Society: Overcoming Technological Constraints
Membership in society was defined by participation in various wider
groups, such as the calpulli or a specific social class, and by gender roles
and definitions. Aztec women assumed a variety of roles. Peasant women helped
in the fields, but their primary domain was the household, where child-rearing
and cooking took up much time. Above all, skill at weaving was highly
regarded. Responsibility for training young girls fell on the mature and
elderly women of the calpulli. Marriages were often arranged between lineages
and virginity at marriage was highly regarded for young women. Polygamy
existed among the nobility, but the peasants were monogamous. Aztec women
could inherit property and pass it to their heirs. The rights of Aztec women
seem to have been fully recognized, but in political and social life their
role, while complementary to that of men, remained subordinate.
The technology of the Americas limited social development in a variety of
ways. Here we can note a significant difference between the life of women in
Mesoamerica and in the Mediterranean world. In the maize-based economies of
Mesoamerica, women spent six hours a day grinding the corn by hand on stone
boards, or metates, to prepare the household's food. Although similar hand
techniques were used in ancient Egypt, they were eventually replaced by
animal- or water-powered mills that turned wheat into flour. The miller or
baker of Rome or medieval Europe could do the work of hundreds of women. Maize
was among the simplest and most productive cereals to grow, but among the most
time-consuming to prepare. Without the wheel or suitable animals for power,
the Indian civilizations were unable to free women from the 30 to 40 hours a
week that went into the preparation of the basic food.
Finally, we must consider the size of the population of the Aztec state.
Estimates have varied widely from as little as 1.5 million to over 25 million,
but there is now considerable evidence that population density was high,
resulting in a total population that was far greater than previously
suspected. Historical demographers now estimate that the population of central
Mexico under Aztec control reached over 20 million, excluding the Maya areas.
This underlines the extraordinary ability of the Aztec state to intimidate and
control such vast numbers of people.
A Tribute Empire
Each of the city-states was ruled by a speaker chosen from the nobility.
The Great Speaker, the ruler of Tenochtitlan, became first among supposed
equals. He was in effect the emperor, with great private wealth and public
power, and was increasingly attributed with the symbols and status of a living
god. His court was magnificent and surrounded with elaborate rituals. Those
who approached him could not look him in the eyes and were required to throw
dirt upon their heads as a sign of humility. In theory, he was elected, but
his election was really a choice between siblings of the same royal family.
The prime minister held a position of tremendous power and was usually a close
relative of the ruler. There was a governing council and, in theory, the
rulers of the other cities of the triple alliance also had a say in
government; but in reality most power was in the hands of the Aztec ruler and
his chief advisor.
Over the course of a century of Aztec expansion a social and political
transformation had taken place. The position and nature of the old calpulli
clans had changed radically, and a newly powerful nobility with a deified and
virtually absolute ruler had emerged. Under the sponsorship of the prime
minister, Tlacaelel, the ancient cult of military virtues had been elevated to
a supreme position as the religion of the state, and the double purpose of
securing increasing tribute for the state and more victims for Huitzilopochtli
combined to drive further Aztec conquests.
The empire was never integrated, and local rulers often stayed in place
to act as surrogates and tribute collectors for the Aztec overlords. In many
ways the Aztec Empire was simply an expansion of long-existing Mesoamerican
concepts and institutions of government, and was not unlike the subject
city-states over which it gained control. These city-states, in turn, were
often left relatively unchanged, provided they recognized Aztec supremacy and
met their obligations of labor and tribute. Tribute payments served both an
economic and a political function, concentrating power and wealth in the Aztec
capital. Archeologists at the recent excavations of the Great Temple beneath
the center of Mexico City have been impressed by the large number of offerings
and objects that came from the farthest ends of the empire and beyond. At the
frontiers, neighboring states, such as Michoacan, preserved their freedom;
while within the empire, independent kingdoms, such as Tlaxcala, maintained a
fierce opposition to the Aztecs. There were many revolts against Aztec rule or
a particular tribute burden, which the Aztecs often put down ruthlessly.
In general, the Aztec system was a success because it aimed at exerting
political domination and not necessarily direct administrative or territorial
control. In the long run, however, the increasing social stresses created by
the rise of the pipiltin and the system of terror and tribute imposed over
subject peoples were internal weaknesses that ultimately contributed to the
Aztec Empire's collapse.
The Aztecs, then, represented a continuation of the long process of
civilization in Mesoamerica. The civilizations of the classic era did not
simply disappear in central Mexico or among the Maya in Yucatan and Central
America, but they were reinterpreted and adapted to new political and social
realities. When Europeans arrived in Mexico, they assumed that what they found
was the culmination of Indian civilization, when, in fact, it was the
militarized afterglow of earlier achievements.